Year/Course: 2010-2011, Easter 2011

Contact: Professor Nigel Slater, Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology
Mentors: Dr Jason Mellad & Alex Hellawell, Innovia

Professor Slater and his team have been working for the past 15 years on the problem of how to get delivery payloads into cells across living cell membranes. The problem is that most payloads are hydrophilic or highly charged while the centre of phospholipid cell membranes is highly hydrophobic. The team have recently developed a special polymer molecule (the 76th polymer they have tried) which can anchor into the cell membrane and create a doorway, which they are now testing for a wide range of uses.
Other companies and research groups have developed such polymers in the past but all of them are difficult and expensive to manufacture. Other researchers have looked at using viral proteins to achieve the same effect, but this approach has significant regulatory hurdles. The advantage of Professor Slater’s polymer is that it is easy, quick and inexpensive to synthesize, and is highly effective even in low concentrations.

Once a doorway into cells has been created, a wide range of applications are enabled. One area is cryopreservation of cells by transporting trehalose into the cells, which is the compound used by desert plants to resist desiccation. The team have used this method to prepare red blood cells, freeze dry them (creating a white powder), and then successfully reconstitute them into intact cells with no haemoglobin oxidation. Other application areas include transporting substances into or out of cells, for example imaging agents, small drugs, and RNAi to switch gene expression.

The question for the i-Team is to investigate and recommend the areas for the research team to focus on by gathering information from relevant industry and medical experts. Could research and medical work with other cells and cell lines benefit from a freeze drying technique that replaces current nitrogen storage systems by a white powder? What other substances need a doorway into cells and are difficult to transport across the cell membrane via current techniques? Which areas have a high regulatory barrier, and which could be developed in the near future? Perhaps there are even entirely new application areas that only become possible using this new technique – it will be up to the i-Team to find out.